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Lapsang souchong is a variety of Chinese tea which is very popular in Southern China and in some other parts of the world. Drinkers of the tea have a love/hate relationship with it, thanks to the very strong and highly distinctive flavor. A cup of lapsang souchong is certainly rarely forgotten, whether or not one finds it enjoyable. Many markets and tea stores sell an assortment of lapsang souchong in looseleaf and bagged styles, with loose leaf generally being preferable since it is often of higher quality.
Like all black teas, lapsang souchong is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. It is the handling of the tea leaves which determines final flavor, and in the case of lapsang souchong, this handling is very unique. First, the tea leaves are withered slightly over open fires. Next, they are allowed to ferment slightly in large barrels, before being dried all the way in large openwork baskets, again over open fires.
The result of this complex curing process is a very rich, smoky variety of tea. Many people describe the flavor as full and warm, very suitable for cool days. In addition to having a smoky flavor, lapsang souchong also has a very strong odor of smoke which is instantly recognizable to people who are familiar with the tea. Since lapsang souchong means “smoky tea” in Cantonese, this is not surprising.
The origins of lapsang souchong are quite ancient. The tea originated in Fujian Province, along the Southeastern coast of China. According to popular mythology, the tea was invented when a band of soldiers disturbed operations at a tea company. Concerned that the tea leaves might rot, the employees quickly toasted them over open fires to dry out, creating the first smoked tea. Another story suggests that the tea was developed by accident, when traders threw packs of tea down too close to the fire, resulting in a thoroughly smoked tea at the other end of the trade route.
This distinctive smoky tea is the original Russian Caravan, first brought overland for trade with the Russians around the 19th century. True lapsang souchong tends to be somewhat stronger than Russian Caravan, and when made from high quality leaves, it is quite a collector's item. Some tea collectors also like to age their lapsang souchong for an even more rich flavor which borders on creamy when well brewed.
"lapsang souchong" does not mean "smoky tea". Not even close! Literally, it means "Lap Mountain small kind".
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